The many styles of salsa dance can be confusing to newcomers. In this post, we will dispel some of the misconceptions, clarify what salsa style might be the best for you, and give you a checklist of key points to consider to be a great salsa dancer.
What are the most common salsa styles?
Three salsa styles are trendy across the world. First, the Los Angeles salsa style which is called salsa on1. Then there is New York salsa, referred to as Salsa on 2. Finally, you have Cuban Salsa, which is more of a brainchild of Son, chachacha, rumba, and many other dance styles from Cuba. But before we go into the different salsa styles, we need to review how to find the rhythm in a salsa song. Indeed, that will dictate how you dance that song, and therefore if your style is close to, say, N.Y., LA, or Cuban. One of the critical instruments that allow a dancer to find the beat in a salsa song is the clave (the conga being another).
How to recognise the clave
A salsa song is a succession of “loops” repeating themselves. Each loop is made of two measures. And each measure has four beats. So when you hear a salsa teacher say 1,2,3-5,6,7, he/she is referring to the beats in this loop.
There are two ways to play the clave—2/3 or 3/2. The clave 3/2 is one of the most popular one in Salsa. Therefore, we will study this one. The numbers 3/2 mean the number of times you will hear the clave on these two measure units we discussed. Consequently, you will hear the clave five times. Three times on the first measure and twice on the second. Check out this video below to learn how to recognize the clave.
New York Salsa
Salsa as we know it originated in New York following the migration of Latin American people in the 50s and the advent of popular Latin groups such as Fania All-Stars. The roots of New York salsa go back to the many Latina-American dance styles, such as Mambo. While transferring to the U.S., this Mambo changed to fit the American audience. In the beginning, the dance style confused dancers since everyone had different ways of dancing it. That was until dancers like Eddie Torres came on the scene, took this street dance into the studio, and created a system. That system is what is referred to as Salsa on 2.
Why is it called Salsa on 2?
New York salsa is referred to as Salsa on 2 because the second beat of basic salsa steps is where the dancer breaks. For a dancer, a typical “pattern” of a salsa song is made out of 2 measures of 4 beats each. This is what I referred to as a typical basic salsa step. As you can see in the picture, a man will “break” with his right foot on the back, while for a lady, it will be on her left forward.
Los Angeles Salsa Style on 1
The salsa style known as salsa on1 originated from Los Angeles and is a linear dance (as opposed to Cuban Salsa). This dance style has a cleaner feel as partners evolve in regulated patterns. As you can see from the picture, the dancer breaks on the first beat. For the man, it will be the left leg; for the lady, the right one. In New York and Los Angeles salsa, the rhythm is like a see-saw motion, where the lady goes backward when the man moves forward and vice versa. Of course, the more skilled a dancer becomes, the more varied the motions. Still, the principle of these styles of Salsa is anchored into the basic steps described. It, therefore, pays to understand the patterns.
Why is it called Salsa on 1?
As you can guess, the name stems from the fact the dancer steps his lead leg on the 1st beat of the basic salsa step pattern. The image illustrates perfectly how it is danced. This basic step is fundamental in understanding the whole system of salsa on1. From this basic step, you initiate turns, change of rhythm, etc.
Cuban Salsa Style
The salsa style known as Cuban Salsa is the extension of a traditional Cuban dance style called Casino Rueda. This dance style is performed with many couples forming a circle and creating moves according to what the maestro/caller would ask. For example, if he asks for couples to change partners in one or the other direction, these couples would need to be swift enough to execute the moves. As for what is called Cuban Salsa (Casino), it’s just the transfer from a multi-couple dance to a single one.
Difference between U.S. salsa styles and Cuban salsa
The major difference between Cuban Salsa and the other two enumerated above is its circular motions, use of strong Afro-Cuban dances (such as Rumba or Chango), and its spontaneous nature. While L.A. and N.Y. salsa could be called “studio” salsa, Cuban Salsa is more “outdoor” Salsa. That’s why you might see two Cuban salsa couples executing dissimilar moves. They draw their inspiration from so many dance styles that one dancer might be keener on “Son” for example, while the other might be stronger in “Rumba“.
Why is it called Casino?
The name comes from the fact that groups of couples would gather in big dancing halls in Cuba and form a circle. Just like the motion of a roulette wheel, they kept this circle moving by executing dance steps a leader would ask them to execute. The key point was to keep the circle moving (clockwise or anticlockwise) while they created beautiful choreographies. As I mentioned previously, Casino (Cuban Salsa) draws from many dance styles such as Son, Rumba, chachacha etc. Below are some of the most popular basic dance steps of Casino.
# Basic dance step: Rueda
This dance step is typical of Casino and is one of the bases of Casino Rueda. As couples face each other in a circle, they execute some basic steps (on 1 in that case) by breaking back. Then, they use their arms to pull and push each other. They typically execute this move as they await the signal from the leader.
# Move from Son
These are some other famous basic steps in Cuban Salsa (Casino). They are connected to Son dancing, where couples “travel” from one side or the other on a full eight count (unlike the basic salsa steps of L.A. and N.Y. where people move in one direction for half of the 8 counts). This is a great move to learn to synchronize your feet to the music.
# Another Son move
This move characterizes the whole spirit of Cuban Salsa. It’s a rotative move where a couple executes a 360° together.
You can check the video below for a description of all these salsa moves.
Which style to choose from?
When you want to know which salsa style to learn, you should keep the following in mind:
▪️ How far am I from the dance studio?
That might sound obvious, but if you have to travel miles to get to a dance studio, you will definitely give up after a while. That’s what happened to me when I first started to learn Salsa. I had to drive about 30 miles from work to one dance studio, and the worst part was all the crazy traffic. At first, I did not realize it, but this whole thing took a toll on my body.
▪️ Are there any events where I can meet practitioners?
Since Salsa is a social dance, you want to make sure you can practice with enough partners to increase your level. However, if you learn Cuban Salsa, for example, but the social events are only focused on New York salsa, you might want to learn N.Y. salsa. You will benefit from the skills you gain by interacting with other dance partners.
▪️ What do I do if I don’t like a salsa style?
This is another obvious question, but you’ll be surprised by the number of people who stick to one category and never explore other styles. For example, I started with New York salsa, but it did not appeal to me. Therefore, I tried different kinds until I found Cuban Salsa. I am grateful for that change because Cuban Salsa, in turn, introduced me to the dance types I like: Contemporary, Chango, Rumba, Abakua, Son etc. All of which my body answers positively to.
Checklist of 7 KEY points to be a great salsa dancer?
Believe it or not, there is a system for every topic, even for Salsa. You must be good at certain things if you want to dance Salsa well. And by well, I don’t just mean show off your dance skills; but be able to truly feel like you are in another place whenever you dance. I reach that state often, so I know it exists, and you can reach it too.
# Understand the beat
You must understand the patterns of instruments such as the clave. For example, where is the 1st beat of a salsa song? Or do you need to listen to it from the beginning and then count it in your head? Or even worse, you have no clues about what these beats are and how to count them. If you want to learn, check out my free 5-level training. First, I explain why you should start with rumba if you want to understand the beat. Then I show you how you progress at every level.
# Practice regularly
Do you only practice once a week? Yet want to perform as well as those you see on the dance floor?
With a limited amount of time, you will only be able to see a few improvements in your salsa game. I, therefore, suggest at least three times a week, with 2 hours for each session, if you want to see progress. Just think about it: you must work on listening, body movement, salsa steps, speed, and coordination. So once a week won’t cut it for you.
# Do you pay attention to body movement?
You must train your body to be “receptive” to be limitless. That means having a body that is supple enough and used to move according to different rhythms. Body movement is one aspect that many people neglect in Salsa. Yet some of the same people wonder why they seem so stiff even after many years of salsa dancing. For example, check out this free-body isolation video I made. This is not the body movement I am referring to, but without this part, you cannot make your body accept new forms. Therefore, it is part of body movement.
# Do you have a partner in crime?
It might seem obvious that a style of dance made for couples requires a dance partner; however, it can be challenging to find the right person. Your partner should be someone that allows for dual work (i.e., you guys work together) as well as independent work. These two parts are essential because you could spend a lot of time with your partner and have a good synchronization with him/her, yet not progress as a dancer. Unfortunately, this happens more often than one thinks.
# Have you got the right pair of shoes?
Another point that seems obvious…until you start thinking about it seriously. Your office shoes will not do for long. If they are of good quality, dancing with them often will wear them down quickly. On the other hand, if you wear your sports shoes, you might feel uncomfortable, especially when doing turns. Fortunately, I have listed my list of top shoes I recommend with an explanation of why and when you need them. For example, flat shoes might be great for training. But high heels might be more stylish and convenient when you go out or perform.
# Choose the style that fits you
I have already mentioned that one previously, but if you are in sync with a salsa style, you are more likely to devote efforts and stick to it longer than if that style does not appeal to you. I spend countless hours dancing Cuban Salsa and other Afro-Cuban dances because my whole system finds happiness in them.
# Embrace the fact that you will suck at it
Whenever you start learning a new skill, you go through a few phases. The first one is excitement. Then comes active participation. Next follows frustration (you put in the time, but everything seems clumsy). Then there is the plateau where nothing seems to happen. Finally, there is the spike, where; out of nowhere; the whole thing seems to click, and you leapfrog to another level. The most dangerous phases are the frustrating and plateau phases since these are the places where you are most likely to quit. Remember, if your body is happy doing something you have never done before, chances are that you are doing the same thing that you did before. Just think about driving, learning a new job, etc. There was an uncomfortable phase that you had to overcome.
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